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Listen To Your Mother: Reading Instruction Is Complex & Multilayered, and Empathy Matters

I’ve been talking literacy instruction with Mom, a whip-smart principal-turned-curriculum-director, this Fall. The tsunami of articles on literacy has given us lots to discuss.

We see eye to eye on 99% of things, but it’s the 1% where we disagree that can be interesting. I’ve been delighted by the dialogue around reading practice that has been building since Emily Hanford’s documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? was published. Mom’s less-delighted reactions have often been instructive to me.

A few cases in point…

When Hard Words came out, Mom saw a lot of wisdom in the piece. Yet she had two concerned reactions. First, she was afraid that all of the buzz about gaps in phonics would inspire a ‘phonics fad’ among folks unaware that phonics is one of many essential pillars of literacy instruction. I wrote about this previously.

Her other negative reaction was about the headline. “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” simply struck her as critical of educators. I felt that overall, the piece showed a lot of empathy for the teachers and leaders in Bethlehem Areas School District. Mom acknowledged this point… but she was still upset about the headline. And she launched into a discussion of the state of the teaching profession right now.

“Kar, did you know that the number of teaching certificates issued in Pennsylvania is down 40%? We are really struggling to find teachers, especially specialized teachers.”

In fact, based on the most recent data, it’s worse:

“The number of education majors in Pennsylvania colleges and universities has dropped 55 percent since 1996, officials said. And the number of new teaching certificates issued in the state sunk 71 percent between 2009-10 and 2016-17, to just 4,412 from 14,247.”

Mom went on.

“It’s alarming, this teacher shortage. We need to attract people to the teaching profession – and keep them in it. We need to figure out how to motivate teachers to be successful, in a profession that can be demoralizing. We’ve seen state strikes because of a legacy of poor teacher pay. It’s a challenging time.

I’m deeply concerned for public education. So yes, I struggled with that headline, and how it might be interpreted. Too many people get their news from the headlines.”

And you know… she has a point. The research is with her: ‘Americans read headlines. And not much else.’

That headline really got under her skin. We discussed it a few times over the last few months. It became clear to me that the headline had affected the way she read the piece at first. Because of the headline, she skimmed it more than read it initially, and sounded “meh” about the contents within. Because I was such a fan of the piece, she reread it, absorbed it more, and then it resonated much more with her.  I see an important lesson in that story: when the lead-in sounds like a criticism, the listener or reader can be lost.

This Tweet about Sue Pimentel’s recent editorial on reading instruction tells the same story:

At first pass, the headline sounds like it could be criticizing teachers, no? It turns out that Sue originally submitted this editorial to EdWeek with a different title: “Let’s Expand the Important National Dialogue About Reading Research: ‘Aha’ Moments and Opportunities.” Carries a much different message, eh?

This confirmed my theory: editors and headline writers eager to generate clicks on articles in social media are the likely culprit. “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” and “Why doesn’t every teacher know the research?” carry some bite. The person who authored that headline knew it. And I have a hunch that Emily Hanford didn’t write “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” into her headline, any more than Sue Pimentel wrote her final title… Emily’s overall piece was too empathetic with teachers for me to think so.

I wonder if we could persuade headline writers that more educators would click on these articles if they found a different way to add some edge.

Lessons for Bloggers, Tweeters, and Advocates

I’ve been hoping (praying, really) that pieces like Hard Words fuel an important national conversation about literacy, and that people keep reading about the issue… building an ever-richer understanding of literacy in the process. Mom’s worried about the folks who take a shallow understanding – like just reading the headline – and mis-apply it.

I spend a lot of time talking (with her, with others, in EduTwitter) about instructional issues that worry me. She cautions me that the efforts to shine a spotlight on the problems of practice in K–12 – which she agrees exist, by the way – must take care not to bruise educators in the process, and thus lose the very educators we need to reach with essential info on research, etc.

In these moments, when a national conversation about literacy is gaining momentum, and as an entire community tries to bring better curriculum into classrooms – mind you, curriculum that pushes many teachers’ practice, albeit while supporting practice shifts – it really pays to reflect on the value of empathy and grace in this work.

“Karen, whatever you do in your work, please make sure you don’t do it in a way that you make educators feel beat up. Plenty of teachers feel beat up enough already.”

– Sue Vaites, my Mama

And, it must be said that the folks in the Twitterverse who sound the most caustic about educator practice are almost always the ones who’ve never worked in K–12 classrooms, and have no idea how hard it is. Just sayin.’

Mom’s thoughtful critiques hit my writing, too. This past Thanksgiving weekend, as most people were holiday shopping, Mom and I were talking literacy while eating pie for breakfast (both predictable Black Friday activities). She read my most recent blog, Essential Research No One Knows: Knowledge Matters To Reading Comprehension. Again, she had a fair critique: “I’m afraid that a teacher might read this, and interpret it the wrong way… suddenly thinking that they had to spend days building knowledge about a subject before letting a kid dive into any text, thus reinforcing bad scaffolding behavior.” Huh. Fair point. (I added a postscript to the blog that day. As one does when one’s mother is right.)

In all of these cases, Mom’s fears are easy to name: Unintended Consequences. And the perils of applying a shallow understanding to a complex subject… which unfortunately, happens every day.

The Takeaways

For anyone reflecting on literacy instruction:

My Mom wants you to remember that there are no silver bullets in reading instruction. Period.

Her wise insights:

“The brain is NOT wired to learn how to read, just like Hard Words says. Success as a reader is a function of a lot of factors.”

“Teaching first grade reading is rocket science.  Teaching second grade reading, and being able to identify and close the gaps for the kids that didn’t pick up skills in first grade… also rocket science.”

Good reading approaches – the ones that reach all students – are multilayered. We both hope you will vigorously resist any suggestions to the contrary.

For anyone Tweeting, blogging, and writing about K–12 education:

Please remember to bring boatloads of empathy for the educators in our midst.

And remember that when you name problems, it helps to pair them with the solutions you propose. ‘Cause clarity.

For me:

Always listen to your mother. She is wise.


To Answer The Question on Everyone’s Mind

Am I going to get in trouble for the Linda Richman meme?

Nyah. Mom probably isn’t reading these blogs! 😂 Unless I stick a computer in front of her while we eat Thanksgiving leftovers, that is. (Which is kinda how we roll.)

She’s not much of an EduTwitter person. And she has a good excuse. She’s really freaking busy working on her doctoral dissertation, which is why the hallway upstairs looks like something out of A Beautiful Mind.

Image from iOS-2

Image from iOS-3

Mom’s dissertation topic: what principals who are strong instructional leaders do differently, in order to maintain the focus on instruction while still keeping All That Other Stuff Demanding Their Attention running smoothly. Everyone who knows her could have seen that topic coming years ago.

I am so proud to come from such phenomenal people. Also, her mid-research organizing process, looking for patterns from her educator research, shows that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.



Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy

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